I was waiting alone in Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport late one Sunday evening in September, 2015. The terminal was far quieter than usual, with my fellow passengers spread sparsely instead of in the big clusters common in peak times. I had gone straight through the security check without having to wait in a cue. As the only passenger being scanned, I had been pulled aside for the additional explosives test. This made me happy. I liked getting the explosives test. It made me feel like I was special. After passing the test with top marks, I purchased a small Cappuccino and found myself eyeing off a a secluded corner of gate lounge 23. I was two hours early for my flight, which is how intended I it. My world had collapsed the week prior. I needed time to think.
I was immediately reminded of the reality that time spent waiting at airports functions like a sort of enforced period of self-reflection. It’s the closest most of us will come to being philosophers. As single travelers you can’t avoid this sense of self-reflection, unless you take the easy way out and stick your head in a mobile phone. Even in busy periods, the hub of activity that marks airport terminals doesn’t directly involve you. It would go on the same way if you were there or not. There is simply nothing much to do, except to contemplate life or distract yourself from your own mind using external stimuli. This is especially so when most of the shops are shut, as they were on this particular evening. Aside from a scattering of passengers, the only other sign of life were the cleaners, who resignedly made their way from gate to gate. I made eye contact with one of these cleaners. He was an older man with gray hair and a gold chain around his neck. His name badge said ‘Victor.’ I smiled and raised my eyebrows. He didn’t. Feeling an ever so slight sense of rejection, I sat down in my secluded corner and looked toward the main thoroughfare. I considered my life’s predicament, and wondered how many other people might be in the same boat. Probably a lot. Airports attract people needing to get away from things.
I had spontaneously burst into tears at a party before catching a taxi to the airport, and my eyes were still red and sore. I was also a little drunk. I was worried that I would cry again. I felt like I was walking a fine fucking line between my usual eccentricity and outright insanity, although the onset of insanity would have brought with it a degree of luxury. Right as I was thinking how nice it would be to spend the rest of my life holed up in an asylum, I noticed a girl walk past who was currently reading messages on her phone. She too had been crying. The incriminating fluorescent lighting of the terminal gave away her secret, even though she was dabbing her cheeks with a Kleenex. She bravely tried holding back the tears, and attempted to give the terminal her best stoic look-all to no avail. Her tears comforted me for some reason. I wondered if I too should buy some Kleenex from the News stand, but it was closed. I stole some rough, 1 ply toilet paper from the public bathroom instead.
There was another lady in the Virgin terminal directly opposite gate 23. She was waiting for a flight to Brisbane. She too was surveying the world around her. She was morbidly obese and had sad, searching eyes. There was pain in these eyes; the evidence of sorrows accumulated. I wondered what it must feel like to have to take a seat in plane when one was the size of almost two people. I remembered my own embarrassment the week before, when I had been left feeling like I wanted to fall into an abyss. I looked at her and smiled. She smiled back. She had a pretty face. I hoped the sun was going to be shining in Brisbane.
When it was eventually time for boarding I felt distinctly sad to leave the terminal and its random collection of individuals- each with their own story and baggage. It was a reminder to me that despite appearances, we are all stuck in some sort of existential mess. Knowing this made me feel calm, and through noticing others I felt more connected to the world around me. Still, I could hardly stay there forever. After being herded through the passenger corridor I sat down on the plane next to some kid who was playing a mindless video game without headphones. From what I could tell the point was to collect as many candy shaped tokens as possible. Each time he retrieved a token from his imaginary world his phone made this piercing ‘ka-ching’ sound. The kids Mum was oblivious to all this. Announcements then came on from the cabin crew reminding us to take our seats. People were fighting for storage space. There were arguments about who was actually meant to be seated in F-22. I thought about the two women from the terminal. If they were on planes now they would no doubt have been jolted out of their self-reflection. I certainly had been. That thing we call reality demanded our full attention, apparently. Overwhelmed with a sense of claustrophobia, I would soon be asking for a Gin and Tonic, and then another one. There was nothing for me to go home to I realized then that the lonely airport terminal had been my real destination, at least for that Sunday.